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Reynolds v. Sims

Further Readings

Reynolds v. Sims is a landmark case, 377 U.S. 533, 84 S. Ct. 1362, 12 L. Ed. 2d 506 (1964), in which the U.S. Supreme Court established the principle of one person, one vote based on the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT. As a result of the decision, almost every state had to redraw its legislative districts, and power shifted from rural to urban areas. All subsequent CONSTITUTIONAL LAW on APPORTIONMENT has relied on the principles established in Reynolds v. Sims.

Reynolds completed a change in direction by the Supreme Court concerning the apportionment of voting districts. Until 1962 the Court had refused to hear lawsuits that challenged legislative districting, concluding that such issues were POLITICAL QUESTIONS that were not JUSTICIABLE. In 1962 the Court, in BAKER V. CARR, 369 U.S. 186, 82 S. Ct. 691, 7 L. Ed. 2d 663, reversed course and ruled that state legislative apportionment cases could be reviewed by the federal courts. As a result, lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the apportionment of legislative districts were filed in many states.

Reynolds involved the apportionment of the Alabama state legislature. The facts in the case were common to many states also undergoing court challenges. When the Alabama Constitution of 1901 was ratified, it provided that the legislature should periodically reapportion itself. The legislature ignored this mandate, however, and the legislative districts remained unchanged for 60 years. During that period Alabama, like other states, saw a dramatic population shift from rural to urban areas. Thus, the Alabama legislature in 1960 was dominated by rural legislators, who were unwilling to reapportion and lose power. The disparities between population and voting strength were staggering. The 1960 census revealed that only about 25 percent of the total population of the state lived in districts represented by a majority of state senators, and counties with only 27.5 percent of the total population elected a majority of state representatives. Population variance ratios of up to 41 to 1 existed in the Senate and up to 16 to 1 in the House. For example, Bullock County with a population of approximately 13,500 was allocated two seats in the Alabama House, while Mobile County with a population of 314,000 was given only three seats.

Faced with these disparities and the unwillingness of the Alabama legislature to reapportion the legislative districts based upon population, a group of citizens filed a lawsuit in federal court. The three-judge panel of federal district judges at first tried to defer to the legislature for a solution. When that failed, the judges implemented a temporary redistricting plan based on population. Alabama challenged the judges' redistricting order in the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court ignored the claims of Alabama and other states that they should be allowed to apportion their legislative districts as they wished under the concept of FEDERALISM. This concept calls for the federal courts to abstain from making decisions that are the proper province of the states.

Chief Justice EARL WARREN, in his majority opinion, made clear that the Court had no choice but to step in. The Alabama legislature had refused to reapportion itself, leaving the citizens with few viable options to effect the change. Alabama law did not provide for an initiative procedure that would have permitted voters to decide on reapportionment. A constitutional amendment was also unlikely, as a three-fifths majority in both houses of the legislature would have to approve any proposals. With no effective political remedy, the Court was obligated to examine the issue to determine if Alabama had violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

The Court recognized that U.S. democracy is based on a representative form of government. The right to vote for a candidate "is the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government." The "debasement or dilution" of a person's vote can be just as effective as prohibiting that person from voting.

Warren concluded that minority control over the majority of state legislators could not be sanctioned. He emphasized that "Legislators represent people, not trees or acres. Legislators are elected by voters, not farms or cities or economic interests." To permit the minority to have power over the majority would be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. Diluting the weight of a person's vote because of the location of that person's residence was as invidious a form of discrimination as if the dilution had been based on that person's race or financial status. Therefore, the Court would require that "each citizen have an equally effective voice in the election of members of his state legislature."

The Court also rejected Alabama's contention that it should be allowed to apportion its Senate based on the equal representation of units of government, in this case counties, rather than of people. Alabama's argument was based on the so-called federal analogy, a reference to the U.S. Senate, where each state has two seats regardless of population. Warren dismissed this analogy, calling it "irrelevant to state legislative redistricting schemes." He pointed out that the original constitutions of 36 states provided that representation in both legislative houses would be based completely, or predominantly, on population. In addition, there was no evidence that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution intended to establish this model for the states. The arrangements for representation in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate were devised at the Constitutional Convention as a solution to a particular political dilemma.

Having dismissed the federal analogy, Warren stated that the Equal Protection Clause requires that both houses of a state legislature be apportioned on the basis of population. To aid the states, the Court provided guidelines that recognized that standards of state legislative apportionment cannot be hard and fast but must be fair and made in GOOD FAITH. The primary objective to be reached was "substantial equality of population." Warren made clear, however, that the Court was not mandating perfect proportionality, for "mathematical exactness or precision is hardly a workable constitutional requirement." A state could constitutionally consider many factors other than population in devising an apportionment plan, but history, economics, and group interests were impermissible factors. Population was to be the starting point in all apportionment discussions, and if a plan debased a citizen's right to vote, it would be unconstitutional.

Warren also directed the states to reapportion their legislatures, at minimum, every ten years, based on the population figures derived from the federal decennial census. A state need not readjust its legislative districts constantly as the population changed, but the Court made clear that inaction such as that of the Alabama legislature would no longer be tolerated. If a state did not reapportion every ten years, any new redistricting plan submitted by the state would be "constitutionally suspect."

The Reynolds decision produced sweeping changes in state legislatures. Within two years at least one house in nearly all state legislatures had been held invalid; in most states both houses had to be reapportioned. Rural domination declined as urban areas gained a substantial number of legislative seats. The ONE-PERSON, ONE-VOTE requirement soon moved to the municipal level, where city councils and county boards also adjusted voting districts to reflect population.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972